This is the second in a multi-part series dissecting, discussing and mining gold from “Side Effects,” the current film by Stephen Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns. Click HERE to read Part 1, then hurry back to stay with us… we’re going hard and fast.
Click HERE to see the TRAILER for the film… you’ll be amazed at how much you see now that the curtain has parted.
PROLOGUE: A Refining of the notion of “Concept”
Allow me this quick educational aside before diving back into “Side Effects.”
This emerging discussion about Concept, the debate, this confusion, this lack of clarity… can go away quickly, and without much argument, when we tweak the definition of “CONCEPT” in the context of applying it as a writing TOOL. If it is given a sharper focus.
So here goes.
When you think about Concept as one of the Six Core Competencies, as an essential and valuable aspect of storytelling… and especially if you’re tempted to do so through the lens of theme, because by golly that’s how you think… consider it this way:
Every story BENEFITS FROM a compelling DRAMATIC CONCEPT.
That changes the game for some, nails it for others. DRAMATIC CONCEPT. A SOURCE of dramatic tension. The seed of conflict (here’s a non-negotiable: no conflict, no story, end of debate). A STAGE upon which theme is allowed to present itself through the thematic consequences of the choices of your characters… within the DRAMATIC CONCEPT.
And yes, this means PLOT. A twist, a conceptual idea… that implies DRAMA.
Hope this helps.
A quick correction: the original version of this post, the one distributed to subscribers, had a serious error: the offending drug from the movie was called ABLIXA. I’d referred to it in this post, quite erroneously, as “Abilify,” which is an actual depression drug (my guess is the alliterative similarities is intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but I’m only speculating). To my knowledge no evidence of harmful side effects, or anything close to those depicted in the film, which is fiction, have been attributable to Abilify. My apologies. Larry
“Side Effects” — From Concept to Specific Story Structure
In the over 200 stories I’ve analyzed in the last eight months, I’d say 75% had problems at the conceptual level. At the DRAMATIC TENSION level. The Questionnaire I use in my story coaching asks for both a statement of Concept and the source of dramatic tension. When those answers don’t align, there’s a problem, and thus, an opportunity to improve the project.
More succinctly, those writers didn’t grasp and adhere to a CORE STORY that IS the source of dramatic tension. Instead they go on to write about a theme or a setting, with either too little or a shifting dramatic focus. The result is a failure to mine the inherent gold of story physics, which is available to all.
Concept is the clarification and evolution of the core story. Not the core theme, not the priority or passion of the writer… but the CORE DRAMATIC STORY being told, which becomes the vehicle for theme. It is essential. Non-negotiable.
When weak, it drags down every other noble intention the author brings to the process. The lack of dramatic concept is almost always a deal-killer.
Take note of the word “dramatic.” It means… not just any old vanilla concept that is a placeholder to check off this criteria. Rather, something fresh and layered and, most of all, compelling.
Dramatic Concept actually leads to and defines the story’s structure.
Examine the first Act/Part in “Side Effects” and you’ll see this at work. It would have been virtually impossible to write this story without completely grasping what it was really about in a dramatic sense.
Just as this film completely fools viewers for up to half its running length, a story rendered without a clear understanding of Dramatic Concept can fool its own writer in a similar fashion. You begin writing about one thing, you realize it wants to be something else, and so you turn that corner… or not. Leaving the uninformed first pages completely without context.
Context is king when it comes to writing great stories. “Side Effects” showcases this with clarity and power. Watch and learn. Every scene is dripping with context (an unspoken, even unacknowledged defining truth), otherwise known as sub-text.
Thing is, Concept isn’t only valuable as something that empowers the outcome, the end-game itself. It is also one of the most valuable story development and writing tools – much like a photograph or an artists rendering empowers an architect’s blueprint – in that it can quickly lead you to four things… all four necessary before a draft will work:
Because Concept defines the CORE STORY…
- it can help you nail the First Plot Point.
- it can define what must be put into play in Part 1.
- it can help you determine how the story will resolve.
- it can help you find a killer opening hook.
A killer concept can actually do a lot more than this, even before the writing itself has commenced (or if you’re a pantser, as you come across opportunities in the draft process, which for you IS the “search for story”), because your Concept defines the CONTEXT of the story.
And a story without context is a story that doesn’t work.
Here’s the ignition switch to make this happen:
Let’s assume you have a solidly compelling and rich DRAMATIC CONCEPT in mind. Because of it you know what the core story IS… and that becomes the primary source of CONFLICT AND TENSION in the narrative.
You can’t really define ANY of those four things listed above (and more) UNTIL you understand the core story. They all connect to and depend on each other, subordinated to a Bigger Picture context… defined by your dramatic concept.
Which sends us back to basics, and to “Side Effects”: the core story ISN’T your theme (the dangers of drugs), your character arc, your setting or your sub-text/sub-plot.
It IS the core story (the murder conspiracy/scam), the primary source of DRAMATIC TENSION.
In “Side Effects” the drugs DO provide some dramatic tension. But be clear, that’s a supporting role here, part of the SETUP and motivation that underpins the CORE story… which is the murder conspiracy and its stock market scheme.
Right there is why you need to know your DRAMATIC CONCEPT… at is very CORE. At the highest priority and focus. Otherwise, you may end up focusing on the wrong aspect of your story, to the detriment of… well, all of it.
Let’s use the movie as a laboratory here.
Better yet, let’s climb into the screenwriter’s head, pre-draft, and see how his understanding of the conceptual core story led him to the FPP, the Part 1 scenes, the ending, the opening hook, and some other story points.
Everything in the story, every scene on the screen, was developing IN CONTEXT TO THE DRAMATIC CONCEPT.
Burns isn’t fooling himself (he’s only fooling us, for about a half hour) that this is a story about the side effects of depression drugs. He realizes that this temporary focus is thematic, that it is sub-text, that it is there – first and foremost – as a dramatic device.
Nothing wrong with making the most of it, thematically, while it’s there. That’s actually part of the power – as well as the narrative strategy – of this story. And it doesn’t matter if that theme was the starting point of the story itself. Regardless of where you start, where your heart is, the professional understands that the story needs to work, and for that to happen, the context of dramatic tension trumps all.
Burns knows his core story is this:
A woman fakes her reaction to a new depression drug, using published evidence of its side effects (sleep walking and delusion) to her advantage to create an illusion. She manipulates a doctor into prescribing it for her, faking symptoms all the while. She’s coached on all this by a silent partner, herself a doctor (and her lover), with a view toward killing her husband, getting off on a temporary insanity plea after a short rehab, then profiting from the resulting stock market hullabaloo relative to the drug manufacturer.
THAT is the core story here. It’s there in the CONCEPT. It’s what this story is ABOUT. Everything else is there is make this happen.
One other piece of basic knowledge applies here: structurally, the core story is LAUNCHED AT the First Plot Point, after being SETUP in the scenes prior to that point.
Scott Z. Burns knows this. YOU should know this. Pretty much any story that works – even after a dozen drafts – exhibits this.
That’s not a formula, contrary to what some naive cynics and brainwashed MFAs insist. It’s dramatic optimization. It’s what makes the story the best it can possibly be.
Mess with this principle at your own, and your story’s, peril. Insert your FPP too soon and the expositional, story physics-driving benefits of a thorough setup wane. Insert it too late and both pace and dramatic tension suffer for it (this is why you put some books down after 100 pages… nothing is happening).
So there you are, you’re Scott Z. Burns, you’re sitting on this killer concept… you understand these concepts… what do you do next?
You nail down your First Plot Point, that’s what.
You have to get Emily’s murder conspiracy in play. You need to define that point at which SETUP transitions into IMPLEMENTATION. A key moment, a switch being thrown, an irreversible milestone being reached, the gas being hit, the fuse being lit.
Burns had three acts to structure (four, for novelists, but it’s really the same thing), and the FPP is a necessary step before that can happen, because it’s what separates Part/Act I from Part/Act II. You write or plan scenes FROM that point, backwards and forwards, rather than allowing it to surface organically.
When you do allow it to surface organically, revisions ensue.
You already know we need to see, in Act/Part 1, the wife displaying all manner of depression and need for therapy and medication. It’s part of her scam, and part of YOUR setup. That’s the mission of your Part 1 scenes. By the time the FPP arrives, you need to have Emily on something (a drug) that our patsy/protagonist/hero has unwittingly prescribed.
Just knowing that practically defines what your FPP should be. Ahead of time. It needs to be the scene in which the doctor agrees to prescribe the Big Bad drug to her… it’s when he (and the viewer) falls smack into her trap (something we, the viewers, won’t realize until Part 3… but YOU, the writer, need to know NOW).
It’s when Emily (the wife) brings Ablixa into her life, the target drug for the stock market scam. It happens when, as a direct result of her displaying her perceived symptoms and manipulating everyone to believing she’s seriously depressed, she ASKS her doctor to prescribe Ablixa for her. She even concocts a story about a co-worker who says it’s great.
It is right HERE that the core story actually LAUNCHES – there’s no core story drama until this happens, even with Emily faking a bunch of symptoms… those mean nothing UNTIL the drug gets into play – after being brilliantly setup in the Part 1 scenes before it.
And so Jude Law does just that. He switches her prescription from Zoloft to Ablixa (under the brand name of Deletrex, which is a bit confusing, but its how the industry works – Ambien, for example, is actually a drug called Zolpidem), which (as an element of Part 1) has been established as the target drug for the scam.
Exactly as Emily and her lover planned. But of course, the viewer doesn’t get that until much later.
And thus, the First Plot Point manifests. At the 25-minute mark. Which is the 24 percent mark of the film’s total 106 minute running time… well within the 20 to 25th percentile optimal target.
You Always Have Choices
Why not sooner? Until you realize all the things Burns had to get into the setup, it may be hard to see why it wasn’t earlier. But when you do consider all the necessary facets of the setup, you can see why it required all that time, about 23 (out of a total of 94) scenes worth of exposition.
Why not later? Why isn’t the murder itself the FPP? Because the core story needs to launch – even in retrospect, which is the case here – early enough to get the dramatic tension into play, versus the setup context of Part 1. This was an author’s choice… either could have worked, but Burn’s went for the mind game first and foremost.
At a glance, without a stopwatch in your lap, you might argue (and almost certainly believed, at least at first), that the murder itself was the FPP. Because it certainly does spin the story in a new direction.
But it wasn’t. It was too late for the FPP. It’s actually the First Pinch Point, occurring at the 35 minute mark (at 33 percent in, a bit early, but totally in keeping with the mission of a Pinch Point: to bring the dark threat of the antagonist – the wife and her scam—front and center to the story… Channing Tatum dead on the floor certainly does that).
None of this happens unless Burns knows exactly what his core story is. What his DRAMATIC CONCEPT is. The murder is a consequence. The core story began as soon as Jude Law gave her Ablixa to provide her scam with an engine.
Part 1, Emerging from the Forthcoming FPP
With Emily beginning to take Ablixa as the catalytic First Plot Point, thus launching her scam after placing all the “setup” activities required for it to work, the Part 1 scenes themselves, which precede the FPP, begin to show themselves. The writer now understands what information, specifically, Part 1 (the SETUP) needs to put in motion.
Emily needs to show her depression to the world. Her need for a doctor. For depression drugs. Her suicide attempt. Her imaginary friend. Her relationship to her husband and his work friends. Her inability to cope while on Zoloft, her initial depression and how it escalates, thus establishing the need for something stronger.
The offending (fictional) drug itself, Ablixa, needs to be introduced and set up. Its side effects – especially sleep walking and delusion – need to have been established.
The audience needs to empathize WITH her, so the mind-boggling story shift will be more effective. That, too, is part of the concept here. It’s the narrative strategy (one of the six realms of Story Physics), to INVOLVE the audience in the story experience.
The co-conspirator (Dr. Victoria Seibert, the Catherine Zita-Jones doctor character) needs to be positioned in the story – she’s the one who first introduces Jude Law to Ablixa), but not revealed as a villain.
You never see it coming… but after you know and go back to see it again, you’ll marvel at how and why you missed it. Everything in Part 1 is converging toward the First Plot Point, as well as unfolding in context to the Big Picture of Emily’s true intentions.
All of this becomes the stuff of Part 1. Stemming directly from the Dramatic Concept, and defining itself in context to the First Plot Point, which denotes the point at which it all must be in play.
Watch the TRAILER again… you’ll see an entire roster of Part 1 scenes here… which it telling, but the mission of a trailer, like Part 1, is to HOOK you and set up you for… well, buying in.
Part 2, Springing Forth from the FPP
I hope you begin to sense the power of knowing what the contextual mission of each of the four story parts IS… and how the specific content of your FPP, in context to the overall Dramatic Concept now points you straight at what must happen in Part 2… where the hero (Jude Law) must RESPOND to it.
At some point, Burns realizes, he has to have Emily kill Martin (Tatum), her husband. That’s a key turning point… not of the story itself, but of her scam (which, it bears repeating here IS the core story). What better spot, then, to show it than at the First Pinch Point, thus allowing Emily to further deepen the perception of side effects for the first half of Part 1 (boy-howdy does it ever), and then have everybody in the ballpark continue to RESPOND to them for the remainder of Part 3.
At some point, though, the story needs to turn a corner.
Eventually it needs to surface that all is not what it seems. New information needs to come forth that pokes holes and casts doubt on Emily’s story, and leads to the revelation of her true motivations.
Which of course is the mission of the Mid-Point. It occurs at the 53 minute mark (exactly the 50-percent target), when Emily strikes a deal with the DA, and basically, because of an insanity plea stemming from the side effects of the drug, gets away with murder. All according to her dark plan.
That plan was in motion from the beginning, and it is working perfectly at this point. Because not only will she soon be free, our hero doctor (Jude Law) is going to end up taking the fall, as the incompetent, self-interested party that prescribed the drug, the cause of it all, to her.And thus, the story has a whole new context. Jude Law is now fighting for his professional and (as we’ll soon learn) personal life. And soon, for justice.
Notice here how the viewer is still in the dark about the truth. But now we’re rooting for Jude Law, because we sense something amiss in Emily’s story. We’ve been brilliantly led to this point by the writer and director, through a series of dynamics and even tiny visual clues, all of which continue to have us completely involved on an emotional level. Even though we’re now rooting for something else entirely.
And all of which, by way, are shown to us (the viewers) in Part 4. Why? To help tie it all together, and moreover, to deliver a sense of emotional satisfaction.
The Opening Hook Also Emerges from Concept
This story was problematic from the get-go, in that the viewer needed to be hooked into something highly dramatic, but without either revealing or cheating the truth. How do you show a forthcoming murder, or something that drastic, without showing us too much?
Burns and Soderbergh did so, in essence, with a short Prologue. A preview of a moment down the story road, without context, yet promising drama (in the form of blood).
In the opening scene of the film, we see a toy model sailboat (a gift to Martin from Emily, as we’ll later learn in a Part 2 scene, just before the murder is revealed) as the camera pans through their apartment, revealing blood stains and bloody footprints.
That’s all we get. In the context of the Part 1 scenes that follow, we expect the blood to be the result of Emily’s side effects. We don’t know who dies, if anyone… but that dramatic QUESTION is on the table. If we were ever in doubt that this building of her drug story was going to end badly, we had only to recall how the story opens.
That’s the HOOK. The posing of a dramatic question, the answer to which we sense will be compelling. The promise of high drama. Of stakes and consequences. Of more going on than we will initially be allowed to see.
And totally impossible to render, from the writer’s point of view, without a complete understanding of the core story, as well as where and how that story reveals itself. In this case, in stages, each building upon what came before.
And then, of course, there’s the ending.
You’ve seen the film, you know how it ends. Badly, as it turns out, for Emily. Which we’re rooting for (against her), and satisfied with. And very nicely, from Jude Law’s POV. Which we’re also rooting for, and in a big way.
It’s obvious how this ending connects to the story’s core dramatic concept. How it is created BY it. Because an ending is the RESOLUTION of the core story, and the core story is DEFINED by the dramatic concept.
If you thought the story, at its core, was about drugs… notice that you don’t get resolution about that. That’s just theme… powerful from the first frame. That’s the only DRAMATIC role in this story for the focus on depression drugs and their side effects.
Which is not to say the writers don’t take the opportunity to poke us with that theme, to whack us upside the head with it, to make us think and ask questions, to inspire a higher awareness. In dramatic fiction that’s almost always the mission of theme within the story…
… something the enlightened writer understands. It’s why theme is among the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.
And thus the dance between theme and conceptually-driven dramatic tension begins. Make no mistake, no matter who asked who for that dance, it is dramatic tension, as framed by the concept, that leads.
Click HERE if you’d like your story plan analyzed – especially your Dramatic Concept and its relationship to the major story milestones – to this degree.